Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Uzbekistan's Religion Law: Currently Under Review

by Elizabeth Kendal

Uzbekistan’s repressive Religious Law is currently under review.

The law – which has its roots in the Soviet era – was adopted in 1998 during the rule of Islam Karimov. A ruthless autocrat, Karimov ruled over the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic from 1989, before being elected as the first president of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan was a Soviet-style police state where suffocating repression was enforced by a brutal security apparatus which was a law unto itself.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev 
When Karimov died in September 2016, the Supreme Assembly appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as Acting President. In December 2016, Mirziyoyev was elected as Uzbekistan’s second President. Since then, President Mirziyoyev (63) has been steering Uzbekistan in a whole new direction.

At home, Mirziyoyev has been tackling corruption and advancing democracy, while opening-up the economy thereby creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, increasing the volume of exports and attracting much needed foreign investment. With regards to foreign policy, Mirziyoyev has eased long-simmering tensions in Central Asia, something crucial for a doubly landlocked country. Further to this, he is eager to engage and establish trade links not merely with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), but also with the European Union and the USA, something that requires religious freedom issues be addressed. After a century of repressive isolation, Uzbekistan may be coming out of the cold. 

In July 2018, four key members of the Uzbek government – Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov, Senator Sodiq Safoyev and Akmal Saidov of the nation’s Supreme Assembly – travelled to Washington to attend the US State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. ‘Our country stands ready for a broad international cooperation in this sphere of religious freedom’, said FM Kamilov.

See: “The World’s Next Religious Freedom Success Story: Uzbekistan?”
Officials make their case in DC during the State Department’s religious freedom ministerial.
By Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, 26 July 2018.

In September 2018, Senator Safoyev announced that the Justice Ministry had prepared a draft new Religion Law; however, the text was shrouded in secrecy.

On 19 August 2020, the draft new Religion Law was made available for ‘public discussion’ on the parliamentary website, which also gave notice that the Law had reached the Oliy Majlis (Legislative Assembly).  In June 2020, President Mirziyoyev had issued a Decree outlining a ‘Road Map’ for human rights and giving 1 October 2020 as the date for a new Religion Law. But as Forum 18 explains the Decree does not say if 1 October is the deadline for the draft or for parliamentary approval.

Sadly, the draft new Religion Law is deeply disappointing. Virtually all the oppressive measures integral to the 1998 law are retained in the 2020 draft. Despite enshrining the principle of separation of religion and state, the draft law perpetuates the state’s repressive interference in religion. All religious activity outside of state-approved, registered organisations, and without permission from the authorities, remains ‘illegal’.  Article 11 bans ‘any forms of missionary activity and proselytism capable of destroying inter-religious accord and religious tolerance in society’. Religious education and the importation of religious literature remain enmeshed in crippling regulations and vulnerable to repressive, arbitrary prohibitions and confiscations.

For full analysis see: Forum 18 (24 Aug 2020)
UZBEKISTAN: Restrictions remain in draft new Religion Law 

Abduvohid Yakubov, an independent rights defender from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent laments the lack of progress. ‘The State must not be afraid of giving full religious freedoms’, he told Forum 18. In saying this, Yakubov has touched on the very thing that makes religious freedom in Uzbekistan so fraught: the state is afraid, very afraid, and not without reason!

click on map to enlarge

Before the arrival of Islam in the 8th Century, Central Asia had many Jewish and Christian communities. Using the ancient Silk Route, the mission-orientated Assyrian Church of the East had taken the Gospel as far east as China and is believed to have established Metropolitans (Bishops) in Kashgar (in Xinjiang, western China) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan).

Arab, Turk and Mongol invasions followed. The Mongols converted to Islam during the 13th Century, the same century Byzantine power collapsed. For Eastern Christianity, the 14th Century was catastrophic. A vulnerable minority within an Islamic super-Caliphate, the Christian communities of Central Asia were annihilated, mostly at the hands of Amir Timur (also known as Timur the Lame or Tamerlane). The genocidal Turco-Mongol warlord is believed to be responsible for the deaths of some 17 million people.

See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (HarperCollins Publishers, 2008).

By the 19th Century, the Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were known mostly as centres of Islamic slave trading. While the slaves for sale were mostly Persian Shi’ites, many were Russian and Armenian Orthodox Christians. Eventually, Tsar Alexander II of Russia on Islam's frontier, stepped in to end it. By 1876, the region now known as Uzbekistan was either under Russian rule or was a protectorate of Russia.

During the Soviet era, the communists mercilessly crushed religion while advancing modernisation. Eventually, in the late 1980s, reforms ushered in by Soviet Communist Party chief  Mikhail Gorbachev – in particular, glastnost (openness) – opened the door for Islam’s return.

After Uzbekistan declared independence (1991) Islam literally flooded in, filling the spiritual void created by decades of enforced atheistic communism. Funded mostly by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mosques sprang up everywhere, missionaries poured in, and Qurans arrived by the tonne. It was not long before Central Asia was simmering with revolutionary and jihadist, pro-Caliphate, pro-Sharia fundamentalist Islam. Once a cosmopolitan melting-pot, Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent quickly became a regional centre for fundamentalist Islam. Monuments to Amir Timur – forever standing tall, seated on a throne, mounted on a war-horse – adorn Uzbekistan’s great cities, including Tashkent and Samarkand.

So yes, the government is afraid. But the government is not alone! Not all Uzbeks are happy about their nation’s Islamisation. Despite identifying as Muslims, they enjoy their modern lives and are excited by Uzbekistan’s new openness and growing prosperity. They do not want conflict, and they certainly do not want to see Uzbekistan dragged back into the 19th Century!

Currently the Religion Law exists to enable the government to retain control and maintain order: i.e. If radicalised Muslims are going to riot at the sight of a church, then the church must go! Instead, the law should exist to protect the fundamental human rights of every human being; in which case it is religious totalitarianism, intolerance and violence that must go!

Though millions of ethnic Russians, Germans, Koreans and other non-Uzbeks have since left, God has raised-up an authentically Uzbek Church, comprised mostly of Muslim background new believers. These believers would love to see an end to police harassment, intimidation, and violence against them. They would love to no longer be viewed with suspicion. They would love to have their fundamental human rights endorsed and protected.

However, while Uzbekistan is no longer part of the long-dead Soviet Union, the Soviet spirit remains embedded in Uzbekistan. For many in government and the security sector, violent repression is the default position. The irony is this method doesn’t work! Whenever the government has cracked down on militant Islam, it has only served to boost recruitment. There needs to be another way to counter the Islamic revival.

This will require a profound transformation in the culture of control and repression. It will require visionary leadership and extensive education always holding out the prospect of a new and better way to live.

David Garisson, in his classic A Wind in the House of Islam, (WIGTake, Monument, CO, USA, 2014) ends his chapter on ‘The Turkestan Room’ with the most wonderful illustration.

Under the subheading ‘Return of the King’, Garrison writes (p158):

Inside the Gur-e-Amir, Samarkand
“On a warm spring day in the dusty town of Samarkand, Muslim families with children on the break from school line up outside of the Gur-e-Amir (Tomb of the King) to see the sepulcher where Tamerlane has been buried for more than six centuries. As they approach the jade-colored sarcophagus, parents pause to tell their children of their illustrious ancestor who cemented the preeminence of the Muslim faith across Turkestan and crushed all other competing religions.

“A few old men and women stop beside the tomb and lean against it to whisper a prayer or solicit a baraka, a blessing, from the famous Turk.

“Unnoticed by them is a young Muslim-background follower of Jesus Christ with a cross necklace tucked into his undershirt. He waits his turn before leaning against the tomb to whisper the words slowly, as if Tamerlane could hear:
‘Just wanted you to know – we’re back’.”


Prayer Points from Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 565
Uzbekistan: Religion Law Under Review, 2 Sept 2020


* intervene in Uzbekistan, to restore the freedom that once existed before the arrival of Islam, when Uzbekistan’s Silk Route cities welcomed Christian (Assyrian) missionaries, as well as peoples and trade from East and West. May the Lord God be jealous for this land! (Joel 2:18-29)

* ‘send out labourers’ into Uzbekistan’s dangerous yet fertile fields; for the sake of Uzbekistan’s persecuted Church and her ‘harassed and helpless’ masses, may the Spirit of our merciful and gracious God blow through that land. (Jonah 4:10-11; and Matthew 9:35-38)

* use as his instruments President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov and Senator Sodiq Safoyev as they navigate the delicate and treacherous path to freedom and openness; may the Lord grant them vision, clarity, conviction, authority and plenty of support. May they be a collective ‘Cyrus’ (Isaiah 45:1-13).

‘Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; let the earth cause them both to sprout; I the Lord have created it’ (Isaiah 45:8 ESV).

* protect and preserve his precious persecuted Church in Uzbekistan; may he grant her leaders wisdom, grace and endurance as they lead the Lord’s people through testing times; may their eyes be fixed on Jesus always. (Hebrews 12:1-3)


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Slaughter in Oromia: The Battle for Ethiopia Heats Up

By Elizabeth Kendal


On the evening of Monday 29 June, popular Ethiopian singer and champion of Oromo interests Hachalu Hundessa (36) was assassinated in Addis Ababa, in Gelan Condominiums, shot as he got into his car at around 9:30 p.m. Addis Ababa Police Commission Commissioner, Getu Argaw, reportedly told Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation that police had arrested an unspecified number of suspects. Hachalu is survived by his wife of 10 years, Fantu Demissie, and their two daughters.

Hachalu’s protest songs became anthems for millions of ethnic Oromo during the years of anti-government protests which commenced in December 2015 and culminated in February 2018 in the resignation of Prime Minister (PM) Hailemariam Desalegn. A month later, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (a four-party coalition) elected Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali (41) as Ethiopia’s first ethnic Oromo Prime Minister. With an ethnic Oromo Muslim father and an ethnic Amhara Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother, Dr Abiy is a convert to evangelical Protestant Christianity. He is a former soldier, having served as a colonel in intelligence and communications. He is also a technocrat and cyber warfare expert. He has a PhD (2017) in conflict resolution from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University [see: RLM June 2018].  PM Abiy’s reforms have been breathtaking, and is brokering of peace with Eritrea [see: RLM July 2018] earned him a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize (2019).

Like PM Abiy, Hachalu Hundessa was an ethnic Oromo Christian (Ethiopian Orthodox). While Hachalu supported PM Abiy’s vision of a united Ethiopia and was critical of militant Oromo ethnic nationalism, he had also made provocative, xenophobic remarks about non-Oromos in Addis Ababa. So while Hachalu might have been an Oromo champion and icon, hard-line Oromo ethnic separatists doubtless also viewed him as a problematic irritant.

Hachalu Hundessa rides a horse in traditional costume during the 123rd anniversary celebration of the Battle of Adwa where united Ethiopian forces, led by Oromo horsemen, defeated the invading Italian forces [see RLPB 492 (5 March 2019)].
[image: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters, Addis Ababa, 2 March 2019] 


Hachalu’s assassination has triggered some of the worst ethnic-religious violence seen in Ethiopia in recent times; and the crisis is far from over. Evidence indicates that the pogroms were organised with the intent to destabilise the nation and derail PM Abiy’s reform agenda.

Initially, suspicion fell on the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which has long resisted PM Abiy’s reforms and peace-making. As it turns out, that was not the case.

On Friday 10 July, Ethiopia’s Attorney General Adanech Abiebie told a press conference in the capital Addis Ababa that two of three suspects in the killing of Hachalu Hundessa were now in custody. The shooter, Tilahun Wami has reportedly confessed that the assassination was commissioned by the Oromo Liberation Front (Shane Group), a militant faction of the Oromo Liberation Front.

This is the group believed to be responsible for the abduction of 17 mostly ethnic Amhara youths – 12 of whom are students at Dembi Dollo university, and 14 of whom are girls – in western Oromia in December 2019. The whereabouts of these youths remains unknown.

Though widely reported as “ethnic clashes”, that description does not do justice to the truth of what really happened. Commencing before dawn the next morning (30 June), gangs of Oromo nationalists specifically targeted ethnic Amhara Ethiopian Orthodox Christians living in some 40 districts of Oromia region. According to official reports, the toll to date is 239 dead with some 300 wounded. More than 3,360 Amhara Christians are now displaced, with multitudes seeking refuge in churches. The military was deployed, and some 4,700 arrests made (1,600 in Addis Ababa).

According to Archbishop Habune Henok, whose diocese is in the West Arsi zone of Oromo regional state, told Borkena (Ethiopian media) that the violence began at 4 a.m. before he had even heard of Hachalu’s assassination.

Archbishop Henok speaks out about massacre of Orthodox Christians,
Borkena, 12 July 2020

“[The Archbishop] confirmed 19 Christians massacred across 11 districts in Arsi are all Orthodox Christians, and they were killed savagely. Elder and youth were targeted in the killing. [Some were] hacked to death. Others were stoned and clubbed to death. . .

“In Arsi Negele, one person (who is a member of the Orthodox Church) was hanged upside down after he was killed. . .

“In terms of destruction of property, 72 cars and 934 businesses have been destroyed including clinics and four schools from Kindergarten to junior school levels (in Shashemene town and Arsi Negele).

“According to Archbishop Henok, the owner of the schools are members of the Orthodox Church and many of those whose properties were destroyed were known for their social services in the church.

“In addition to businesses, 493 residences have been burned – and all of them are followers of the Orthodox Church.

“The Holy Savior Church in Kokosa, a district in Western Arsi Zone, is burnt down to the ground with all the Holy Icons and other sacred items in the church.”

The Archbishop insists that these were not simply “ethnic clashes”.

“He said ethnic identity was used as a cover only. The targets were Christians, and that the attack was a coordinated one, he said.

“In the region where the massacre took place, there appears to be intolerance towards the followers of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.”

Also on Tuesday 30 June, violence erupted in the capital over burial arrangements for Hachalu’s body.  Oromo nationalists demanded he be buried in the capital Addis Ababa, but police suspected this was merely a ploy to bring insurrection to the capital. On the other hand, Hachalu’s family, with the support of the government, insisted he be buried in his birthplace Ambo, 100km west of Addis.

Security personnel were forced to intervene when a group of Oromo nationalists – among them Jawar Mohammed (an Oromo nationalist leader and fundamentalist Muslim) – attempted to intercept and snatch the body en-route to Ambo. A policeman was shot and Jawar Mohammed (34) – who despite his citizenship issues wants to contest the next election in opposition to Dr Abiy [see RLPB 526 (30 Oct 2019)] – was arrested, along with around 30 of his supporters.

Jawar Mohammed remains jailed, alongside another prominent Oromo politician, Bekele Gerba. His appearance in court sometime later this month is sure to be explosive.

Social media reveals how Jawar’s Oromo nationalist supporters and financial backers in the diaspora – in particular, thousands of ethnic Oromo and Somali Muslims in Jawar’s former home base of Minnesota, USA – encouraged and cheered on the killings from afar.

Ethiopia’s social media captures Oromo xenophobia killings Live
By Teshome Borago, for Borkena, 3 July 2020

“Many of [the] anti-Abiy Oromos funding the OLF-Shane militant operations inside Ethiopia live in Minnesota and diaspora; so their social media activity suddenly picked up at the end of June. They successfully organized protest rallies in Minneapolis and other western towns while posting disturbing nativist comments online promoting violence. Most Social media Oromo comments said ‘Time to remove settlers from Oromia’, ‘burn them out’, ‘free Oromia’, ‘Abiy is traitor’, ‘Abiy must go’, ‘Kill all neftegnas (non-Oromos) in Oromia!’ Etc.”

Gradually, posts started appearing from the relatives of victims:

“One post in Amharic was by Amman Chiksa, who said ‘several fathers of my friends just got killed’, in the same town of Asasa, Arsi. ‘They were murdered for no reason. They are elderly and all they do is go from home to church and back, everyday.’ Then the grief-stricken person asks, ‘who would commit such savagery?’. . . ‘why would anyone burn down a clinic?’, ‘why would anyone burn down houses where the elderly congregate?’

“Ethiopians online posted condolences of support and felt sorrow for the senseless killings in Oromia region. The man then said, ‘my mother survived as she fled in hiding . . . may God help us,’ and added ‘Asasa and other parts of Arsi currently look like Mogadishu’.”

As Teshome Borago writes the Borkena (3 July 2020) article above: “Most of the crisis today is connected to the apartheid system called ethnic-federalism, also known as Zenawism [after its founder, PM Meles Zenawi Asres] which tried to segregate Ethiopia by tribe since 1991. It was a faulty system designed to address past injustices, but it is now believed to have caused the most civilian death, displacement and destruction in Ethiopian history in less than 30 years.”

Ethiopia's Oromia Region
An enlarged map can be downloaded here (reliefweb 27 March 2013)


This is a battle between the vision of a strong and united, multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ethiopia versus the dream of ethnic nationalists to rule themselves in independent states. Three decades of ethnic federalism has hardened ethnic identities, resulting in ethnic nationalism and separatism. These movements tend to be led by ambitious politicians (often self-centered megalomaniacs) whose aim it is to ride to power on the back of victimhood narratives.

In a country like Ethiopia where people have moved around, lived together and intermarried for centuries, ethnic nationalism establishes ethnic minorities – minorities at risk of discrimination, subjugation, slaughter and ethnic cleansing as is being demonstrated so tragically in Oromia. 

It must be stated that Jawar Mohammed’s Oromo ethnic nationalism is further fueled by his Islamic worldview, which is no doubt why many Oromo Christians (like Hachalu Hundessa) tend not to support it.


In an interview with FRANCE 24 (10 July), Zadig Abraha, the Ethiopian minister in charge of democratization, accused “external forces” of playing a role in the recent violence in Oromia region.

While making it clear that investigations were ongoing, Zadig also accused forces opposed to changes ushered in by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of being behind the unrest. Specifically, he said, “the old regime together with forces [whose] interests are aligned with it, are working to make sure that reform gets aborted. And in this game, external forces are also involved.”

One such “external force” that would gain from PM Abiy’s demise is Egypt, which is engaged in a heated dispute with Ethiopia over its construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Egypt warns of 'existential threat' from Ethiopia dam
Aljazeera, 30 June 2020

“At a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry warned of conflict if the UN fails to intervene.

“Filling the dam without an agreement could bring the standoff to a critical juncture. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to open conflict.

“One analyst, however, believes it is unlikely any of the countries involved will resort to force.

‘Ultimately, especially in the long run, the only way for Egypt to secure those [water] supplies is via cooperation with its upstream neighbours, very much including Ethiopia,’ said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

‘If this escalated into any form of conflict, it’s going to make it much, much more difficult for the parties to overcome the remaining obstacles to reaching an agreement on the GERD, and it really could set back relations in the long term,’ he told Al Jazeera.”

Davison’s assessment makes a lot of sense; however it does not preclude the possibility that Egypt might seek to facilitate regime change in Addis Ababa.

For more on the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, see:
Egypt Warns Ethiopian Mega-Dam May Provoke Conflict, Crises
By Sonal Patel, Power Magazine, 2 July 2020

Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II ruled, expanded and modernized Ethiopia from March 1889 to his death in December 1913. In seeking support from European powers he explained Ethiopia's predicament: “Ethiopia has been for fourteen centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans”.

Indeed it is! So, apart from Egypt, it is not difficult to think of other “foreign forces” which might likewise be interested in fueling ethnic-nationalism and fanning the flames of unrest for the purpose of destabilising the government of PM Abiy. Some would even fantasize about dismantling, shrinking and challenging the very existence of that “Christian island”. Doubtless many would be especially excited about the prospect of supporting a committed Islamist such as Jawar Mohammed.

It is highly likely that fundamentalist Islamic jihadists in Egypt and Sudan, as well as Islamic irredentists in Somalia (who claim much of Ethiopia’s Eastern/Ogaden Region as belonging to Somalia); along with transnational jihadist organisations -- in particular Islamic State which is already recruiting for a jihad is Ethiopia [see RLPB 520 (18 Sept 2019)] -- may actually see Ethiopia’s crisis as an opportunity not to be missed.

Who knows? Even Turkey’s belligerent and Islamist President Erdogan might be willing to contribute some weapons and Syrian fighters for the cause (as he is doing in Libya). Or the Iranians; after all, Iran is already busy in Africa.

Not only is Ethiopia a Christian island in a sea of Islam, but Dr Abiy Ahmed is at this moment a reforming prime minister in a sea of enemies – deadly enemies with lots of equally deadly potential friends.

We can only hope and pray that the government of PM Abiy will find that it too has friends that will understand the government's predicament back its exalted goals.

The situation demands vigilant monitoring and aggressive advocacy.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Mozambique: A Crisis in the Making.

by Elizabeth Kendal

On Tuesday 7 April, Islamic insurgents perpetrated a most appalling massacre in the village of Xitaxi, in Muidumbe district, in Mozambique’s northern-most region of Cabo Delgado.

According to reports – which only emerged on 21 April – the massacre was an act of retaliation against young men who had refused recruitment into the jihadist’s ranks. In all, 52 young men were slaughtered; most were either shot dead or beheaded.  Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of Pemba (provincial capital) has described them as "true martyrs of peace because they would not agree to take part in the violence."

As noted by The New Humanitarian, “The number of victims is among the highest of any incident since the militants began staging attacks in the gas-rich area in October 2017.”

Though no-one has claimed responsibility, it is presumed the killers are the same Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) jihadists who, on 23 March 2020, temporarily seized control of the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia; and on 25 March, hoisted their flag in Quissanga. [See: Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 543, Mozambique: jihadist threat escalates (1 April 2020).]

According to Mozambique’s 2017 census, 59.8 percent of the population identify as Christian,  13.9 percent claim no religion, 7.3 percent adhere to other beliefs (mostly animism) while Muslims comprise 18.9 percent. Contradicting this, Muslim leaders maintain that their community (which is mostly Sunni) comprises between 25-30 percent of the population.

Though a minority overall, Muslims comprise a majority (58 percent) in the northern-most coastal province of Cabo Delgado which also happens to be the southern-most reach of the Swahili Coast. When it comes to language of culture, the Muslims of the Cabo Delgado coast have more in common with, and are more integrally connected to, the Muslims of the Swahili Coast than with the rest of Mozambique.

Stretching from southern Somalia, along the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, northern Mozambique as well as the north-west coast of Madagascar and encompassing the Comoros Islands, the Swahili Coast is essentially the crescent shaped region where the Indian Ocean meets the East African coast. Arab traders first arrived at the coast in the 8th century. Many settled there and intermarried with Africans to create a unique Swahili (“people of the coast”) identity and culture.

Located some 2,500 km north of Maputo (Mozambique’s capital) Cabo Delgado is isolated, neglected and under-developed. Unsurprisingly, the region has become a sanctuary for criminals and a hotbed of organised crime, including heroin trafficking (Mozambique’s second biggest export after coal), gemstone smuggling, wildlife poaching, and other illicit trades. And while criminal networks and corrupt political and business elites are making a fortune, the locals are left struggling to survive. It is a recipe for bitterness.


In 2010, US energy company Anadarko found major gas reserves off the coast of Cabo Delgado province. The following year, Italy's ENI also found a massive gas field in the area.

Offshore magazine (30 Sept 2020)
click on map to enlarge
As Aljazeera reports, “Since then Mozambique has seen an influx of foreign energy companies fishing for lucrative contracts: Anadarko, Total - which in 2019 bought Anadarko's assets in Mozambique - ENI, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and others.

“Cabo Delgado is now home to Africa's three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects: the Mozambique LNG Project (Total, formerly Anadarko) worth $20bn, Coral FLNG Project (ENI and ExxonMobil) worth $4.7bn, and Rovuma LNG Project (ExxonMobil, ENI and CNPC) worth $30bn.

“But, despite the billions in investments these contracts have brought, the people of Cabo Delgado are yet to see any benefit from them. In fact, some have already suffered immensely from the arrival of the gas industry.” (emphasis mine)

The “some” in that last sentence refers to the coastal communities that have been evicted from their homes, cut off from their farmlands and fishing grounds, and forced to relocate in order to make way for the construction of LNG facilities . . . and this, without adequate compensation. 


Gas-rich Mozambique may be headed for a disaster
by Ilham Rawoot, for Aljazeera, 24 Feb 2020

Recent discovery of natural gas changing locals' lives in Mozambique
(YouTube) from CGTN Africa, 1 Dec 2015


An historic ethnic-religious-political fault-line runs through Mozambique. As foreign investment flows into Cabo Delgado – where that fault-line is most volatile – the bitterness, disillusionment  and anger simmering along the Swahili Coast is providing transnational jihadists with fertile ground in which to recruit. Furthermore, the region's extreme remoteness – across the border from Tanzania and 2,500 from Maputo -- makes northern Cabo Delgado a perfect place in which jihadists can find sanctuary and from which terrorist operations can be launched.

Old, Familiar Fissures 

While the residents of Cabo Delgado have long-suffered from neglect and under-development, the “some” who are destined to lose the most on account of LNG infrastructure, and who are destined to benefit the least from the inflow of wealth and the increase in jobs, are the ethnic Mwani (89 percent Muslim, one percent Christian), the original residents of the coast, who have long supported the opposition: Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Mozambiquan National Resistance) or RENAMO.

While the coastal Mwani are destined to be the “losers”, the “winners” will be the mostly Christian political and business elites and settlers from Mupato as well as Cabo Delgado's inland Makonde (80 percent Muslim but essentially animist; 5 percent Christian), all long-time supporters of the ruling party: Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Mozambique Liberation Front) or FRELIMO.

This fissure in Cabo Delgado – between the RENAMO-supporting Mwani and the FRELIMO-supporting Makonde – is not new.

To the contrary, it has roots in history dating back to the war of independence (1964-1974). Throughout that conflict – which was mostly fought in Cabo Delgado – the Mwani fought alongside the Portuguese (the colonial power, which had long-favoured the Mwani), while the Makonde joined with the liberation forces of FRELIMO. The same divide opened in the civil war (1977-1992).

FRELIMO has ruled Mozambique ever since independence (1975), rewarding its supporters and neglecting the rest. 


The religious element in this ethnic-religious-political fissure has been seriously inflamed since the arrival of Wahhabism. This has caused historic divisions to widen while also creating new divisions within the Muslim community.

In July 2019, IS released a video
showing militants in Mozambique
pledging loyalty to the group.
BBC Monitoring, 25 Nov 2019
Writing for Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, Brian Perkins dates the expansion of Wahhabism in northern Mozambique to the early 2000s.

According to a report entitled, “Islamic Radicalization in Northern Mozambique: The Case of Mocímboa da Praia,” published in September 2019, “the group that attacked state institutions in Mocímboa da Praia town on 5 October 2017, initially emerged in the northern area of Cabo Delgado as a religious group and then, in late 2015, it began to incorporate military cells. . .”

The following two reports are excellent for understanding the depth, complexity and volatility of this bitter ethnic-religious-political divide. The first one (published by IESE, in Maputo) is especially helpful is understanding the evolution of Islam in Cabo Delgado, including the rise and spread of intolerant, pro-Sharia, pro-jihad, anti-infidel Wahhabism among the region’s angry and disillusioned youths, the terrible divisions this is creating in the Muslim community and the risk to the country as a whole.


Islamic Radicalization in Northern Mozambique: The Case of Mocímboa da Praia 
Authors: Saide Habibe, Salvador Forquilha e João Pereira
Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IESE), Sept 2019
Maputo, Mozambique
(P.S. while the PDF is 64 pages, the main body of the report is confined to pages 3-34. Highly recommended!)

Evaluating the Expansion of Global Jihadist Movements in Mozambique
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 10
By Brian M. Perkins, 17 May 2019


The insurgents first burst on the scene on 5 October 2017. In an attack that sent shock-waves through the nation, 30 armed insurgents targeted three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia. They killed two policemen, stole ammunition and temporarily occupied the town. The government sent in the Armed Forces and a battle ensued lasting several hours. It was the first confirmed Islamic terror attack in Mozambique.

click on map to enlarge
Since then, the insurgents have mainly targeted isolated villages, killing more than 700 people, according to medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and displacing at least 200,000, according to a local Catholic archbishop, Dom Luiz Fernando (April 2020).

For a long time, mystery and confusion surrounded the group, which comprised but mostly locals, but also included Tanzanians, Kenyans, Ugandans and others.  “We don’t know what they want,” said Gildo Muntanga, a displaced person whose village was attacked last November (2019). “We just see them killing people.” (The New Humanitarian, Feb 2020)

It took around 20 months for Islamic State to take notice.

On 4 June 2019, Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP) claimed responsibility for an attack in Mozambique for the first time. “Thanks to God, soldiers of the Caliphate repulsed a Crusader Mozambican Army attack in Mitopy in the Mocimboa region,” it’s statement read. 

The government of Mozambique responded by denying that Islamic State had any presence in the country. 

The Monday 23 March 2020 seizure of Mocimboa da Praia has been the jihadist’s most audacious and sophisticated terror attack to date. On that occasion, the jihadists entered the town before dawn from land and sea. They fought, burned property, released prisoners, looted food and weapons “sufficient for two battalions” and ultimately raised their black flag over police headquarters.

Having totally overwhelmed the Mozambiquan security forces, the jihadists controlled the streets all day until military reinforcements arrived, at which point, the jihadists fled “leaving behind a trail of blood, bodies, and missing persons”. Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) claimed responsibility.

Analysts surmise the day-long seizure of Mocimboa da Praia could mark a turning point in the insurgency.

ISCAP in Quissanga, 25 March 2020
source: Stratfor, 31 March (subscription)
As noted by Adriano Nuvunga, the director of Mozambique’s Centre for Democracy and Development, “They [the insurgents] have gained confidence, and they seem to have gained capacity as well.”

On the other hand, young soldiers in the Mozambiquan army are under-equipped, under-paid, under-fed and lacking logistical support. “Apparently, the state does not have either the capacity or the motivation,” said Mr Nuvunga.

Ryan Cummings, a political and security risk analyst, told Aljazeera, "The increase in the attacks is reflective of the failure of the state to adequately curtail the Islamist insurgency. The militant group has also employed enhanced weaponry and demonstrated evolved tactical engagement.”


While the government has responded by deploying more forces, they have failed to halt the violence. Complicating the situation is the fact that there are numerous reports of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, poor treatment of suspects, and summary executions. Journalists complain that security forces are obstructing their work; several have been detained. [See: Amnesty International, 17 April 2020.]

With Islamic insurgents moving around freely and threatening terror which could scare off investors, President Filipe Nyusi has reached out for international help. First came mercenaries from Blackwater (American); then some 170 soldiers belonging to the Wagner Group (Russian) which, after suffering heavy losses (including beheadings), pulled back in March this year.

On 20 April, Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released a video in which heavily armed masked militants bearing the Islamist’s black flag, claim to have shot down a Gazelle ZU-ROJ helicopter. Standing around the burned-out wreckage, the jihadist spokesman announced: “A helicopter was shot down by Islamic State fighters on Wednesday [8 April]”. According to Defence Web, “The ZU-ROJ was registered to South African company Aviator at Work in December 2019 and is believed to be flown by Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).”

Interview with Mgr. Luiz Fernando Lisboa,
Mozambique, Aid the Church in Need, 
27 April 2020
Many are critical of President Nyusi’s handling of the crisis. “It’s like a pilot starting a plane without properly mapping the course of the flight,” said Mr Adriano Nuvunga. “I see more muddling through . . . more militarisation.”

Luiz Fernando Lisboa (pictured right), the Brazilian Catholic bishop of Pemba (provincial capital), has no difficulty articulating the problem: “Cabo Delgado is in a situation of isolation and it does not even seem that we are part of Mozambique. If they [government and business elites] don't involve the population, if they don't bring jobs to the youth, the [gas] resources will end up becoming a curse.”


Why The Insurgency in Northern Mozambique Has Got Worse.
Two attacks on towns in northern Mozambique by suspected jihadists point to a rapidly deteriorating security crisis.
by Dr Alex Vines OBE, Managing Director, Ethics, Risk & Resilience; Director, Africa Programme, Chatham House. 1 April 2020

Who's behind the violence in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado?
‘The situation is escalating, and the government is losing control.’
by Philip Kleinfeld, for The New Humanitarian, 12 Feb 2020


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Persecuted Church.

Persecuted Christians in the developing and non-free world will find themselves increasingly at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold.

Firstly, there is the problem of systematic discrimination. As “unclean” infidels Pakistani Christians can’t get hospital treatment in the best of times, let alone in the worst of times. This will not change during a global pandemic, not in Pakistan or any place where Christians suffer systematic discrimination and persecution.

Likewise, Christian prisoners in Iran, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Eritrea and beyond are unlikely to be treated if infected with COVID-19 while in the prison system.

Then there is the likelihood that the COVID-19 crisis will provide hostile state and non-state actors with an opportunity to exploit security vacuums to advance their own agendas.

Christians most at risk on this count are:

Assyrians Christians in Northern Iraq where Kurds (Sunnis) and Shabaks (Shi’ites; proxies of Baghdad and Tehran) might be eager to exploit the opportunity provided by COVID-19 pandemic to complete their land grabbing campaign in the Nineveh Plains (the Assyrian homeland for millennia) – even to complete the genocide.

Christians in Nigeria and the Sahel (in particular in Burkina Faso) as well as Central Africa and the Swahili Coast – where jihadists groups and criminal enterprises could exploit the opportunity provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to expand, consolidate, establish bases and access resources.

Below are excerpts from several reports that support this view.

Elizabeth Kendal
24 March 2020


Covid-19 sows Islamic trouble in Maldives paradise
Tourism-dependent island nation threatens to become a hotbed of religious extremism as economic desperation sets in.
By Bertil Lintner, Asia Times online 5 April 2020

MALE – As tourism in Maldives plummets with the travel-restricting Covid-19 pandemic, forcing many in the globally-oriented industry into unemployment, the idyllic island nation could soon become more vulnerable than ever to extremist groups like the Islamic State.

That rising risk was apparent on February 4, when three foreigners were stabbed on the outskirts of Male, the island nation’s capital. Muslim militants later took responsibility for the attacks, the first seen in years. Rising economic desperation, some suggest, could cause more.

If upshots from a previous seismic crisis – namely the one caused by the calamitous 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami – remain relevant, Maldives could see a Covid-19 driven uptick in Islamic radicalism.   [. . .]

Terrorist groups may conduct attacks with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.”

As ex-president Nasheed pointed out, radicalization is not confined to disgruntled youths: “Radical Islam is getting very, very strong in Maldives. Their strength in the military and in the police is very significant. They have people in strategic positions within both.”

On March 28, Maldives reported its first local Covid-19 case, raising the total number to 16 with the others being foreign tourists and raising the risk of more local transmission.

As elsewhere, the island country is now in an economy-strangling lockdown, one that will contribute to the desperation and frustration of many young Maldivians and unemployed migrants.

As they inevitably seek comfort and refuge in religious beliefs, fears are rising they will be easy prey to hardline imams and extremist groups looking for new young recruits to their radical causes.

Islamic State claims first attack in island nation of Maldives
BY CALEB WEISS | April 16, 2020
for FDD's Long War Journal

Earlier today, the Islamic State claimed its first-ever attack in the small island nation of Maldives. While the reported operation did little in terms of damage, it does represent the further spread of the group’s violence. . .


Covid-19 restores Myanmar military’s lost powers
New military-steered Covid-19 task force has given cover to a wide-reaching clampdown in the name of national stability
By Bertil Lintner, Asia Times online, 2 April 2020

CHIANG MAI – After weeks of implausible official denials, Myanmar is finally facing up to the reality of its Covid-19 outbreak.

The nation may also soon face a new political reality as the powerful military, or Tatmadaw, leverages the situation to roll back recently restored democratic rights and reimpose strict social and media controls harking to its previous junta rule. . .

In mid-March, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government formed a 21-member committee she now heads to broadly manage the country’s Covid-19 situation.

On March 30, in a move some see as a Tatmadaw power play, another ten-member Covid-19 task force was formed to investigate cases, trace contacts of confirmed cases and clamp down including through arrests on “fake news” and “disinformation” that could cause “panic among the people.” 

The newer and more powerful task force significantly does not include Suu Kyi or even her health minister, an oddity considering the body’s Covid-19 containing remit.

Rather, it is headed by First Vice President Myint Swe, former general known for his past record of arrests and crackdowns, including a lead role in the lethal clampdown on the 2007 Buddhist-monk led “Saffron Revolution” protest.

Other task force members include all three military-appointed members of Suu Kyi’s Cabinet, namely the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and Lieutenant General Mya Tun Oo, the powerful joint chief of staff of the defense services. Five civilian ministers are also included.

Although the government has not formally declared a state of emergency, the new committee’s sweeping powers and the fact that it is headed by a former powerful general means that the Tatmadaw effectively back in the driver’s seat and no longer restricted in exercising power from behind a quasi-democratic façade fronted by Suu Kyi.

[. . .]

[The Tatmadaw's] military actions are not likely to attract much attention or protest amid the global Covid-19 crisis, though rights groups are starting to clamor about the gathering Internet and media clampdowns.

The Tatmadaw, meanwhile, is settling into its new status as the undisputed defender of the nation in a health emergency, while Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government for the first time since it was formed in 2015 is being forced to make major concessions to armed forces instead of vice versa.

The Covid-19 crisis, while still incipient in Myanmar with unknown consequences ahead, is giving rise to a new military-dominant order that once established will be hard to roll back.


Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 543 | Wed 1 Apr 2020
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.


Cabo Delgado is Mozambique's northern-most coastal province and the southern-most reach of the Swahili Coast. . .  An Islamic insurgency has simmered in the region since October 2017. [. . .]

On Monday 23 March jihadists conducted their most audacious and sophisticated terror attack to date. They invaded one of Cabo Delgado's largest towns, the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia, entering before dawn from land and sea. The jihadists fought, burned property, released prisoners, looted food and weapons 'sufficient for two battalions' and ultimately raised their black flag over police headquarters. Mozambiquan security forces were simply overwhelmed. The jihadists controlled the streets all day until military reinforcements arrived and the jihadists fled 'leaving behind a trail of blood, bodies, and missing persons'. Islamic State Central Africa Province has claimed responsibility. . .

Analysts surmise the day-long seizure of Mocimboa da Praia could mark a turning point in the insurgency. It comes just as Mozambiquan President Filipe Nyusi declares a state of emergency for the month of April, aimed at curtailing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. [. . .] (emphasis mine)


COMMENTARY / The COVID-19 Pandemic and Deadly Conflict
Crisis Group, 31 March 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a potentially era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy, its long- and short-term consequences for deadly conflict are less well understood. Much remains uncertain, but it is already clear that the pandemic could cause enormous damage in fragile states, trigger unrest and undermine international crisis management systems. The disease is already disrupting humanitarian aid flows, peace operations and crisis diplomacy, and it could be catastrophic for civilians caught in the midst of conflict, particularly refugees and displaced people. Over the coming weeks and months, Crisis Group will offer special publications on the coronavirus and its effects on the conflict landscape.

Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus  
Crisis Group, 31 March 2020

Even as COVID-19’s toll mounts, the world should brace itself for attacks by ISIS, which believes it can exploit the disorder the contagion is causing. This continuing jihadist threat requires the sort of international cooperation that militants hope the virus will sap. . .

. . . In a new editorial in its weekly newsletter, ISIS has told its membership that their globe-spanning war is to go on, even as the virus spreads. Moreover, it has told them that the national and international security regimes that help keep the group in check are about to be overloaded, and that they should take maximum advantage. [. . .]

ISIS published its editorial on COVID-19 in the 19 March edition of its weekly newsletter Al-Naba (the Dispatch). . .

The editorial, titled “The Crusaders’ Worst Nightmare”, reports approvingly on COVID-19’s effect on the many enemies whom ISIS collectively terms “polytheists”. “Fear of this contagion has affected them more than the contagion itself”, says Al-Naba, referring to how people across the world are shutting themselves in their homes as commerce grinds to a halt. Security forces are deploying in the streets to halt the virus’s spread, and imminent economic crisis seems likely to spark crime and social unrest. [. . .]

Al-Naba concludes from the foregoing that Muslims have a “duty” to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19’s spread, but also to act. The editorial enjoins ISIS supporters to liberate Muslim captives from prisons and camps; to show no mercy to the “infidels” and “apostates” in their moment of crisis, and instead to attack and weaken them, rendering them less able to harm Muslims; and to bear in mind that the calamity befalling the West and its allies “will substantially undercut their ability to wage war on the mujahideen in the coming period”. The editorial closes by reminding readers that the best way to avoid God’s punishment – including coronavirus – is through obedience to Him, and that the act of obedience most beloved to God is “jihad” and inflicting pain on His enemies.

ISIS’s rhetorical line on COVID-19 has evolved as the virus’s geographic scope and human toll has become clearer. In January, Al-Naba reported that “a new disease spreads death and panic” in “communist China”. Then, as Iran suffered an outbreak, the newsletter gloated that the contagion was an exemplary punishment from God for Shiite Muslim “idolatry”. Now the group has apparently reconciled itself to the virus’s global spread, even as it hopes that God will specially afflict “polytheist” nations.


COVID-19: How Pandemics Disrupt Military Operations
Sim Tack, Global Analyst , Stratfor, 25 March 2020
excerpts (Stratfor subscription required for full article).

Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world are facing widespread disruptions to not only the health of their populations and economies, but their militaries. Even if the virus itself doesn't leave key personnel severely ill (or worse), quarantine measures can still severely thwart military operations. Meanwhile, military powers such as the United States may increasingly be forced to deploy additional forces to the frontlines of unfolding COVID-19 outbreaks at home. The resulting fallout could, in turn, result in setbacks in the fight against multiple non-state actors abroad, and potentially even the long-term development of military capabilities. [. . .]

. . .In addition to military capacity geared toward balancing against other states, operations against insurgent groups and terrorist cells will be severely disrupted. Due to their asymmetric nature, these militant organizations will also not be facing the same kind of burden and responsibility of the state due to the pandemic. As troops are deployed in a COVID-19 response capacity, or have to cancel training exercises or operational preparations, the ability to rotate forces into the relevant theaters could temporarily grind to a halt. . .

[NOTE - doubtless this will have a huge impact on counter-terror operations in West Africa and the Sahel - EK.]


Muslim Extremists Exploit Coronavirus to Promote Terrorism, Hate
by Bassam Tawil, Gatestone Institute, 25 March 2020

As countries across the world are turning themselves inside out to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Muslim extremists and terrorists have been expending their energy on promoting terror attacks against other Muslims as well as "infidels." . . .

As scientists and other "infidels" around the world, including Israel, are working around the clock to find a vaccine for the virus, the Muslim Brotherhood organization and some of its allies are issuing fatwas (Islamic religious opinions) that expose dangerous goals, a dangerous ideology, and a disregard for human life.  [. . .]

The Global Fatwa Index (GFI) organization, affiliated with Egypt's Dar al-Ifta and General Secretariat for Fatwa Authorities Worldwide, disclosed on March 16 that it had been monitoring and analyzing numerous fatwas on the coronavirus.

The group found that a large number of the fatwas related to the disease came from "unofficial" bodies and individuals.

The GFI Index concluded that "extremist organizations and terrorist groups are exploiting the outbreak of the virus to implement their ideology, spread chaos, terror and panic, and call into question the nation's institutions and leaders." [. . .]

An Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood fugitive, Bahjat Saber, has been using the outbreak of the virus to call for carrying out terrorist attacks against the Egyptian authorities. Saber urged Muslims who have the flu, or who are suspected of being infected with the coronavirus, to enter police stations and other government institutions in order to spread the disease.

The report noted that an intelligence document leaked by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior revealed that ISIS was seeking to recruit its coronavirus-infected members to act as "human biological bombs" in various parts of Iraq. So, ISIS wants to use its members to spread the virus among Iraqis.

The good news is that the rulings of the terrorists and extremists do not represent the views of the leading Islamic religious authorities in most Arab and Islamic countries. The bad news is that extremist Muslims and their allies are again exposing their contempt for human life, including the life of Muslims who oppose their ideology, terrorism and jihad. . .


COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch
International Crisis Group, 24 March 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy. Its political consequences, both short- and long-term, are less well understood.
The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy. Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied. [. . .]

Some leaders may also see COVID-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis. . .
 . . . at a time when the pandemic is distracting major powers and multilateral organisations, some leaders may surmise that they can assert themselves in ways that they would otherwise deem too risky. A spate of attacks against U.S. targets by Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may well be part of a pre-existing effort by Tehran to push the U.S. out of the Middle East. But with Iran’s leadership already under enormous domestic pressure, the toll taken by the coronavirus might also affect its calculus. As we wrote, “feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction”.

Similarly, the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments in Africa and the Middle East. . . As Crisis Group has previously argued, jihadist forces tend to “exploit disorder”, gaining territory and adherents where conflicts already exist or weak states face social turmoil. . . It is possible that social and political disorder may create similar openings for jihadist actors as the crisis goes on . . .


COVID-19: Where Most See Crisis, Some See Opportunity
By  Thomas Abi-Hanna, Global Security Analyst, Stratfor, 19 March 2020
excerpts (Stratfor subscription required for full article)

As the coronavirus pandemic monopolizes more of the world’s time, money and attention, the latest surge of violence in Kashmir between India and Pakistan highlights the potential for countries to act more aggressively with less scrutiny. But state actors aren't the only ones who will be tempted to capitalize on the current chaos. As more governments become bogged down by the virus and the economic fallout from containment efforts, jihadist groups and other non-state actors will also have the opportunity to advance their positions in security hotspots around the world. This could not only raise the risk for military escalations in those areas in the short term, but could allow militias to resurge once the global health crisis eventually subsides. [. . .]

A Convenient Cover for Militants

The global coronavirus outbreak could also create opportunities for non-state actors, such as militant groups, to regroup and eventually resurge. A primary constraint on militant activity across various security hotspots has been constant pressure from security forces. But the diversion of resources and manpower from the frontlines of many of these fights toward containing the virus will ease pressure on these groups. Likewise, these groups face a lesser risk of being directly impacted by the virus, given that many of them operate in rural and isolated regions such as spacious deserts, rugged mountains and dense forests largely cut off from the outside world. These developments will afford these groups opportunities to regroup, reorganize and engage in more training, as well as plan new activity on both operational and strategic levels. . .

Examples of potential groups that could take advantage of these developments include, but are not limited to:

  • Islamic State branches in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Nigeria (also known as Boko Haram), among others
  • Al Shabaab in Somalia and other al Qaeda branches around the globe
  • The Maoist Naxalites in India
  • Militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir

In the coming months or even years, long term economic impacts caused by the coronavirus crisis will weaken the governments' stances against these militant groups, potentially making the latter more dangerous. Governments will have fewer resources to allocate to security forces in the fight against these groups, especially in less developed countries that are already struggling to combat them. This may allow these groups to expand their areas of operations in light of decreasing pressure. In fact, economic downturn, scarce employment opportunities and dissatisfaction with governments may even make those in the population more susceptible to recruitment by these militant groups, who will be able to offer them money, a sense of belonging and a way of lashing back out at the government. . .


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).